DUNLOP MSA British Touring Car Championship team Handy Motorsport experienced one of their more frustrating outings of the 2016 season at Rockingham over the Bank Holiday weekend.
The highlight was a 14th placed finish in the second of Sunday’s three races for Vale ace Rob Austin.
Delivering superb top five pace at the wheel of the No 11 Toyota Avensis in practice on Saturday, Austin looked set to continue the team’s excellent run of form, but a grid penalty for qualifying – a result of an incident at Knockhill a fortnight earlier – hindered the squad’s hopes.
Forced to start round 22 from the back of the 31-car grid, Austin fought his way into 20th place, despite running the slower ‘hard’ compound tyre in the opening contest.
He then raced strongly to 14th place in round 23 but hopes of a top ten challenge in round 24 went awry after the Avensis was shunted off the track on lap one. Although recovering, he eventually retired after more contact.
“Our plan was to go for 15th in the first race from the back, tenth in race two and then try and be in the mix for race three, but it obviously didn’t work out that way!”, said team principal Simon Belcher.
“The hard tyre was horrendous in race one and gave the car lots of micro-vibrations which caused a lot of oversteer, so that didn’t help our plan to be honest.
“Rob did all he could, though, and he raced well. We know the car was good again this weekend, the pace in practice two proved that, but the end results didn’t meet our expectations.
“Having said that, even with the race three retirement, it wasn’t a complete disaster either and we’re all determined to hit back at Silverstone in a few weeks.”
While the opening practice session on Saturday morning was affected by rain and no fewer than three red flag stoppages, the second session went much more smoothly and Austin ended the dry run with the fifth fastest time overall – just 0.5 seconds shy of the top of the timesheets.
For qualifying torrential rain arrived at Rockingham, with the added drama of lightning, but the session was largely redundant anyway for Handy Motorsport as a result of the penalty for Austin from the Knockhill meeting, meaning he would begin race one from the back of the grid regardless.
Lining up in 31st position for round 22 on Sunday morning and with plenty to do, Austin managed to stay out of trouble on the opening lap and picked his way through to climb into 25th position prior to the emergence of the Safety Car.
Racing resumed on lap four and the 35-year-old gained two further places, even though the hard compound tyres were not proving favourable, before being edged back to 24th spot on lap six.
After trading places with Warren Scott’s Subaru around mid-distance, Austin then made more gains late on and he managed to break into the top 20 on the penultimate lap.
Due to a turbo problem for the sister Speedworks Motorsport-run Toyota of Tom Ingram ahead of race two, Austin started round 23 from an enhanced 19th place and with a fantastic move around the outside at Turn One of the Rockingham Oval banking he grabbed 18th position.
At Deene Hairpin, though, he was delayed by contact ahead so had to mount something of a recovery to get back into 18th place, which he managed to do on lap two.
Pushing hard and swarming all over the competition ahead, Austin moved into 17th on lap three and then grabbed two places in quick succession on the fourth tour out of turn one.
Running inside the top 15, the Handy driver then found himself bottled up behind a particularly defensive Eurotech Honda, which delayed his rapid progress, but he managed to move into 14th on lap 12.
Although edged back by a recovering Colin Turkington soon afterwards, a spin for the latter on the 16th and final lap enabled Austin to regain 14th spot – just a couple of seconds shy of the top ten.
Underlining the pace of the Handy Motorsport package, Austin’s best lap of the race was a time of 1min, 24.314secs, only 0.3 seconds shy of the fastest of all, to set the platform for a potentially entertaining top ten challenge in race three.
Frustratingly, though, contact to the rear of the Toyota at Deene on the opening lap of the final encounter pushed Austin wide and off on to the grass on the outside of the hairpin.
Managing to recover, albeit last following a Safety Car period between laps two and four, he pressed on and managed to rise from 29th place into the top 20 with some strong driving before a second cautionary period.
After the second restart though, contact from the MG of Ashley Sutton resulted in broken right-rear suspension and retirement to the pits.
Silverstone National Circuit will host the penultimate race meeting of the BTCC season on September 17/18.
Austin is 15th in the standings with 95 points and fifth in the Independents Trophy standings with 228 points, whilst Handy Motorsport are ninth in the team rankings with 102 points and fourth in the Independents Team Trophy list.